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Beyond the Good Life
A Feature Review of
A Life that is Good:
The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2018
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Reviewed by Bob Cornwall
*** This review originally appeared
on the reviewer’s website.
It is reprinted here with permission.
Browse his website for other excellent reviews!
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul told his readers the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. It is easy to mistake Paul as an advocate of Christian anti-intellectualism, but that would not be true. He values wisdom, just not the kind that devalues the power of the cross. His comments about wisdom, however, do raise questions of the purpose and value of wisdom, especially words of wisdom that are found in Scripture. It’s interesting that the Letter of James, which is often contrasted with the words of Paul, is understood by many to be a book of wisdom. No biblical book is linked to wisdom than the Book of Proverbs. If you’ve spent time with this biblical wisdom book, you will know that it can give you pause. There are sayings found within its pages that seem harsh and judgmental. There are words that connect wealth and goodness that also seem out of place in the real world. Then there are the words directed at women, which are often unflattering (to put it mildly). The question for us then is whether it offers a word of wisdom for today.
It has been a while since I spent a lot of time exploring the Book of Proverbs. I dip into it on occasion. There are only seven occasions when the Revised Common Lectionary takes preachers to Proverbs. So as a preacher, I’ve rarely visited it. I did take a class on Proverbs in college, but that was a long time ago. While it also was a long time in the past, during my brief tenure as a youth minister I met with a group of high school students at lunch for conversation using a booklet containing the text of Proverbs (drawn from the Living Bible). Proverbs 31 is among the texts the RCL offers preachers (Pentecost 18B); I know better than to use it on Mother’s Day.
With this preface, I come to Glenn Pemberton’s thoughtful guide to the Book of Proverbs and the Wisdom tradition. First a word about the author. Pemberton is according to the biographical statement on the book a “minister-turned professor-turned -writer. Having taught Old Testament at Abilene Christian University (a university related to the A Capella Churches of Christ), health issues forced retirement. However, he has used retirement to continue writing. Previous books focused on the Psalms of Lament, which suggests he has a deep interest in Wisdom literature. It is demonstrated by this book.
The book’s title—A Life that Is Good—offers us an apt description of Pemberton’s understanding of Proverbs. For Pemberton, the way of wisdom points us not to the good life, but to a life that is good. This is an important distinction, which makes the book rather appropriate for our times. In a consumer driven culture, the good life is prized, but for the writers of the Book of Proverbs and other forms of wisdom literature, the opposite is true. If the good life comes to us, it is because we have first pursued a life that is good.
While this book is deeply rooted in biblical scholarship—you can tell from the way he writes that Pemberton is a careful scholar—Pemberton didn’t write the book for specialists in wisdom literature. He wrote this book for the general reader. He designed it to be used by groups. Therefore, each chapter ends with a set of discussion questions and a “project challenge.” As an example of a “Project Challenge,” the chapter on “The Women of Proverbs and Proverbs 1-9” is as follows:
Proverbs 1-9 features three speeches from Woman Wisdom that encourage people to accept her words, live in her path, and ultimately marry her. Reimagine these speeches. What if the primary audience consisted of young women and that instead of Woman Wisdom, the sages selected Mr. Wisdom? Write a speech from Mr. Wisdom to a young woman. What dangers face a young woman today? What are the “other” or “strange” men like? How can a young woman recognize and avoid them? Share your speech with the group. (39)
I should note here that Pemberton believes that this Book of Proverbs was originally written as a manual of wisdom for young men, which explains a lot about what appears to be a rather unflattering view of women—women are seductive, etc. As for the makeup of the book, Pemberton believes wisdom is practical and thus the book needs to have a practicality about it.
Pemberton wants us to know that these proverbs are the work of the Sages, as opposed to priests and prophets. He writes that “unlike prophets or priests, sages derive their understanding of God and life with God from what they see or experience, as well as what others have seen and experienced. They accept these insights as normative or God-given, just as a prophet regards a vision or a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” (9) In other words, the Sages look at the world around them and discern from it a word from God (something that gave Paul trouble). As for the definition of wisdom, he points two levels. The first level has to do with a special skill or expertise. The second level builds on the first, and “expands the first meaning to include living life as a whole with expertise, to live a life that is good.” (9-10) This book, therefore, is a product of the Sages reflecting on life and offering words of guidance so that the reader might live a life that is good.
Pemberton recognizes that the Book of Proverbs is a collection of sayings that evolved over time. As noted earlier, the likely audience was young men preparing for life. That is, the audience is most likely comprised of “naive young men who stand at a point in life when they must begin to take more responsibility for themselves and their decisions” (20) While Wisdom is personified in feminine terms, women are not always portrayed positively. Two kinds of women are often contrasted — woman wisdom and woman folly. Embrace the former and flee the latter. The way in which women are portrayed — often as the seductress — can cause us a lot of grief. We need to recognize the patriarchal context of this work and recognize that the audience is young men. If we can affirm this, we can learn from these messages, even as we recognize the problematic nature of some that we read.
Pemberton divides the eleven chapters of the book into four parts. Part One is introductory. He introduces us to the Sages and their Book. From there he moves to the role of women in Proverbs, along with an overview of chapters 1-9. These chapters form a collection that describe Woman Wisdom and offers a brief collection of wisdom sayings. Chapter three concludes Part One by giving an overview of chapters 10-31. It is in this chapter that he lays out definitions and descriptions of a proverb. He does so in art by inviting the reader to think of other forms of proverbial sayings, noting along the way that translation can get in the way of meaning.
Part Two includes three chapters. The first (chapter 4) speaks of deforming character. That is, what it does it mean to be a fool. What happens to us when we take the wrong path? Chapter five invites us to search for God in the Book of Proverbs. In this chapter he reminds us that the Sages looked not to divine revelation for inspiration but to life itself. So, what does God have to do with this? Finally, in chapter 6 he takes note of the way justice and mercy are understood in the book of Proverbs—what he refers to as the Wisdom of Merciful Justice.
These first six chapters provide the foundation for what will come next. Chapter seven takes note of what Proverbs has to say about speech, which is a common topic in this book. Pemberton writes that for the Sages, “speech functions as both a thermometer and a thermostat.” Regarding the former, “speech detects the wellness of a person’s heart.” As a thermostat, “our heart determines how we will live and is ultimately responsible for our speech that affects our communities, our families, and our own character development” (134) From speech, we move to wealth and poverty. Again, the Sages have much to say, some of which can be seen as wrongheaded (my word). The point here is living a life that is good. That includes use of wealth and the reality of poverty. The Sages have words of advice for how to live appropriately. Finally, there is a chapter on leadership. Remember that the audience are young men, who may be on the verge of adulthood and the possibility of providing leadership in the community at some point. This is true whether the audience is the sons of the nobility or others who might have opportunity to gain education that leads to leadership. When it comes to guidance for effective (and moral) leadership, the nation of my citizenship could do with a healthy dose.
The final two chapters speak to our relationships (Part Four). One chapter focuses on friendship and the other on family. I especially found the last chapter on family values insightful and intriguing. The author understands very clearly, that the ancient definition of family is very different from our own. We think in terms of the nuclear family, but the ancient world conceived of family much more broadly. There is much to learn, but we must be careful with how we read it and apply it.
Pemberton takes the Book of Proverbs very seriously and he wants us to do the same. As you read through the book, it becomes clear that Pemberton has been teaching about Proverbs and Wisdom literature in variety of forums, from the pulpit to the classroom. There is evidence here of a deep familiarity with the subject that should enable lively conversation and a move toward a life that is good. While the Proverbs may have been written for young men, with a bit of imagination we can expand on that reality (but only if we first acknowledge the original audience) so that it may speak to our times. As for its usefulness, I will simply say this: I found it compelling, accessible, and worthy of the highest recommendation.
Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, and author of Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer. He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com